Past Prime: A Story of Growing Old & Going Home During the Pandemic

Updated: Feb 22

They say that places are never like you remember them. I’ve been on the road for twelve hours to see my dad for the first time since the pandemic started and I’m having difficulty recognizing my surroundings.

While this certainly isn’t my first trip back to Michigan, it feels different this time. The places I hold fond memories of don’t stir the same feelings of connection within me. As I pass by Ann Arbor, it dawns on me that it’s been over 20 years since I spent a semester “studying” there. Further up the road, the gas stations and convenience stores that I used to frequent look old and disheveled. Their faded, forgotten storefronts seem foreign to me.

As I get closer to home, I pass the old shopping mall that looks like a shadow of its former self. It’s no secret that Flint has been hit hard with economic issues, job losses, and a water crisis in recent years. Still, it’s concerning to see the mall parking lot nearly empty. It’s Christmastime, after all. The signs that once advertised places like Foot Locker, JCPenney’s, and The Finish Line now sit mostly empty, the white paint used to cover the names of past tenants fading with time.

The movie theater along I-69 that was such a big part of my childhood years is no longer there; the bulldozers and backhoes did their work on it over a decade ago. The drive-in further up the road hasn’t shown a flick in nearly as long and looks like it’s been for sale for more than a little while.

Its huge rusting signs signal to me that I’m nearing home and I begin to feel the anxiety build.

Snowy scene showing tattered, rusty signs for the Miracle Twin Drive-In theater and a for sale sign.
The tattered, rusty signs for the Miracle Twin Drive-In. Photo by Andy Miller.

As I turn on the exit for M-15, I sit a little straighter in my seat, convinced that I’m going to see old friends, teachers, and acquaintances. Maybe I’ll even run into an old coworker from the store where I bagged groceries in high school. I glance at every car at the stoplight, expecting a smile, wave, and shocked looks at my unexpected presence. They don’t come. The same happens at the next light. And the next. By the time I pull up to my dad’s place, I’ve slumped a little lower in the seat, coming to grips with my new-found irrelevance.

Warm Embrace

The feelings of insignificance quickly give way to nervous anticipation as I hop out of the truck and approach the front door. I ring the bell and my dad comes out to greet his unannounced visitor. When he sees it’s me, he swings open the door and we wrap each other in a warm hug. His emotions are on high and his voice cracks with the tinge of tears.

“I’ve missed you a lot,” he tells me as we pull apart. I can see the mist in his eyes.

If this were to mark the the end of my trip, it would have been worth it entirely.

I tell him I’ve missed him, too, and get right to the point. “You wanna go to the cabin for a couple days?”

It doesn’t take long for Dad to think it over. “Sounds good!” he replies, and the plans roll further into motion.

As Dad’s partner, Carol, and I exchange hugs, Dad starts collecting his things for the trip. I can see him grabbing his hat and gloves and putting a few pieces of clothing in a duffel bag. Carol insists on putting a sweater on my dog and tells Dad not to forget his medicine. I watch as he picks up bottle after bottle, analyzes the label on each one, and throws them into his bag.

We’re ready to go.

I take his bag out and stow it away in the bed. As Dad is walking out to the truck, I notice he’s taking his time with shortened steps. I open the door for him and watch as he cautiously uses the running boards to climb inside.

Pandemics Change Everything

It’s been 11 long months since I’ve seen my father in person.

It’s not like I wanted to wait all this time to see him. I’ve wanted to visit. But – like the rest of 2020 – things haven’t gone as planned.

Since moving to North Carolina back in 2008, my wife, Becky, and I have made a point of staying connected with our families. Pre-kids, it seemed like we made the drive to be with family every other weekend. As our family’s grown, the trips have become less frequent, but we still make a point to see everyone a few times each year. Throw in the occasional detour during a work trip, FaceTime calls, and family coming to visit NC and you have the makings to feel properly connected while living apart.

Enter Covid-19.

My once-hectic travel schedule has been put on ice since the pandemic broke in March. In my past life, I was a frequent flyer and hotel connoisseur with a healthy budget who enjoyed frequent upgrades and fancy meals while exploring new locales. During one trip last year, I enjoyed a lobster omelet for breakfast in Boston, deep dish pizza off the Magnificent Mile for lunch, and something overpriced and underwhelming for dinner in Times Square.

Ahh, expense reports.

Now that I’m eating on my own dime, I’m lucky to have Cheerios in the family room, a sandwich in my second-floor makeshift office, and a fast-food dinner in my truck. If I’m feeling really adventurous, I put the tailgate down and eat with my legs dangling off the end.

Other things have gone the way of my expense report, particularly our out-of-state travel. We’ve been determined to avoid planes due to the pandemic, limit stops, and try to avoid hotels whenever possible. A four-hour drive across the state is daunting; the 12-hour drive to Michigan now seems impossible. Throw in a couple of young kids with their raisin-sized bladders and uncanny propensity for touching every germ-covered surface and the drive gets prioritized somewhere between reorganizing the pantry and volunteering for a non-sedated colonoscopy. It ain’t happenin.

Just because a long family road trip hasn’t been on the horizon doesn’t mean the desire to go back home hasn’t subsided. If anything, it’s grown stronger as the days, weeks, and months tick by without the familiar warm embrace of loved ones.

Knowing that I haven’t seen my Dad since a quick breakfast on the way to the airport in January has gnawed at me.

In early December, my wife’s family lost a dear family friend to the virus. He was a giant of a man, not just in size, but in character too. He was a pillar of the small community and his passing really hit a nerve for many.

Several days later, Covid struck close to my family. My dad’s neighbor – another leader in the local community – had contracted the virus and passed away within a few short days. Dad had gone to see him and his wife a couple days beforehand, dropping off an anniversary card. While he wore his mask, he was understandably worried that he may have become infected, too.

After these close calls, I was more determined than ever to visit my dad. I urged him to get a Covid test. Without telling him, I did the same at a local drive-thru testing site in North Carolina. While we waited for the results, I hatched a plan to make the trip to Michigan.

I reached out to Carol and asked her if there was anything stopping Dad from going up to the cabin with me for a few days. I explained I’d pick him up and play chauffeur, and asked the visit be kept a surprise. Carol was on board from the start and helped me keep it under wraps.

Dad got his negative test results on Friday. I was still awaiting mine, but assumed I’d be okay considering I hadn’t taken too many risks and had been feeling fine.

While I’m excited to spend some time with my old man, I’m absolutely determined not to introduce him to the virus during our adventures. To that end, my provisions look a lot different this time around. I’ve loaded the glovebox with disposable masks, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes. Kleenex boxes line the pockets along the doors. Cough drops have settled into the center console.

Of course, I’ve still packed the essentials, too. Scores of Twizzlers, peanut M&M’s, and trail mix are stowed conveniently within reach.

I went to bed last night still waiting for the results of my “rapid” test and set the alarm for 4:00. Worse-case scenario, I’ll turn around – regardless of how much of the drive I’ve completed – if the test delivers a bombshell verdict.

This morning’s wake-up call jolted me from deep sleep and, for the first time in a long while, I didn’t fumble for the snooze button. Actually, it was the first alarm I’ve heard since I started going to work in the bedroom next door dressed in sweatpants and a collared shirt. I jumped from bed, hopped in the shower, got dressed, and kissed my wife and kids goodbye before 4:20.

Right as I was walking for the door to the garage, my phone buzzed. My test results were ready, and not a moment too soon. There would be no turning around halfway. I was in the clear!

Time Marches On

The months between our visits have taken their toll.

Dad’s had to battle some illnesses and health scares this past year. Over Labor Day, he went to the emergency room after having trouble breathing and coughing for a couple of days. It got so bad he couldn’t catch his breath and his heart was struggling. He was scared, knowing that shortness of breath was one of the tell-tale symptoms of the coronavirus.

“The worst part was waiting for the goddamn test results,” he told me. “It felt like forever laying there thinking I had it.”

While he dodged the Covid bullet, he didn’t walk away unscathed. Doctors had discovered some concerning heart issues that had caused fluid to build up around his body, including his lungs. They diagnosed him with congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation and went to work draining the excess water off his lungs. When they were done, they had removed 18 pounds of it from Dad’s body.

He takes diuretics now to control the fluid, but his nagging cough remains. I pick up on it every time we talk on the phone or hop on a video call.

The cough is remarkably noticeable now that I’m sitting beside him in the truck. Sometimes he has such intense coughing spells, I wonder if they’ll ever stop. Once they do, Dad quickly dismisses it.

“This happens every year when it gets cold,” he tells me the first time I point it out; “the doctor tells me it’s just nasal drainage” the next; “I figured out I’m good for an hour if I just clear my throat” the last.

I’m pretty sure Dad doesn’t even believe the defenses he’s offering up at this point, but each one serves its purpose of kicking the can down the curb and buying him some time between questions.

A Familiar Trip

We’ve made this drive hundreds of times together over the years. My parents purchased the cabin when I was in First Grade and we spent most Friday evenings making the three-hour trek along I-75 to get Up North. While most Michiganders with cabins utilize them exclusively in summer, we went year-round: rain or shine, flurry or blizzard.

Over the years, we’ve made stops up and down the highway for gas, bathroom breaks, and quick bites. We developed a mental list of favorite places, what they were known for, and their respective mile markers.

We’re passing one now near Bridgeport.

I point to a building. “Remember when that was the chicken place we used to visit? Started with an F, I think.”

“Freeway Fritz,” Dad says matter-of-factly without any hesitation.

His memory has always amazed me. It’s like a steel trap holding tight to various bits of information. He can easily recall places and events from over 30 years ago. A car guy, he can usually tell you what kind of car was being driven at the time, what color it was, and how that year’s model was different from the previous edition.

I’ve been particularly amazed with Dad’s ability to remember people. You know that embarrassed feeling you have when you forget a name? I’m pretty sure my dad has never experienced that. He can remember people he met once twenty years ago at a snowmobile race or auto show. He remembers my old friends, their parents, and – of course – what they drove. My siblings and I lean on him when we’re having trouble remembering a name or a detail and he never fails.

At one time, Dad had 2,500 customers. Each customer had their own 3x5 card in his trusty metal filing cabinets. And each card contained what cars they bought, when they bought them, their spouses’ and children’s names, and a picture of them standing next to their car stapled to the back.

A lined 3x5 index card showing customer information, name, address, and vehicle.
One of Dad's 3x5 customer cards. Author's personal collection.

I don’t think he needed those cards to remember people or their names. Rather, he used them for a very important occasion in our household: the annual Christmas card mailing. Every December, our family would set up shop to send out cards to Dad’s customers. My brother, sister, and I would sign the cards, seal the envelopes, write out addresses, and adhere stamps. For twenty-five hundred customers. The monumental feat took us weeks to complete. By the end, our hands were filled with papercuts, our wrists were sore, and our tongues tasted like adhesive glue and blood.

“Get all your Christmas cards out yet?” I ask.

“Just finished them up this morning! The last one’s in the mailbox now.”

“Good work! How many did you send out this year?

“About thirty-five.”

I look at him incredulously.

“What? My penmanship sucks! I only send cards to people who send them to me now.”

I know better than to push it any further, so I just give him a small jab.

“Thank God you sold Buicks. You’d still be sending out cards if you sold Chevys to young people.”

“Exactly! They’re all dead anyway!” he jokes back.


As we get further from the big cities on our trek North, we enter long stretches of road without roadside distractions. The restaurants, gas stations, and billboards grow fewer and farther between. It’s quiet and peaceful, and there's a little bit of snowfall lingering from the last accumulation. I’ve always been drawn to the seclusion the area provides.

It’s shortly before 9:00 pm as we make our last turn towards the cabin.

It’s like going to see an old friend. Throughout my life, the cabin has been a constant in my world while everything else has changed at breakneck speed. A visit to the cabin has always been my cure for whatever ailment life has thrown my way. She’s kept me grounded as I navigated tough decisions, comforted me during times of grief, and served as a backdrop for celebrating many of life’s milestones. We make a point to take a family vacation at the cabin every year, but this year has had other plans. I haven’t seen her in 18 months.

As we pull into the drive, I’m comforted by the familiar surroundings. The cabin’s exterior hasn’t changed much in 30 years, save for a new metal roof and some changes to the front porch. I recognize the trees that have grown along with me, the concrete slab where I wrote my name with a stick, and the weathered sign out front welcoming guests to the river. I take a deep breath of fresh Up North air with its unmistakable cool pine fragrance and listen to the silence that has settled in over the land.

I walk up the steps, open the door, and hold it open for my dad. He’s a few steps further back than I expected, but I pretend not to notice. As I head back to get the bags from the truck, he readies the inside by turning on the furnace and hot water.

We sit down in the living room and chat a little bit before bed. The cold winter air has caused Dad’s cough to flare up again. He has a tough time keeping the cough at bay long enough to have a conversation and he’s repeated a story he told me in the truck already. After a short while, we retire to our beds, which is okay with me because I’m exhausted from 15 hours on the road.

Changing Views

I wake up before sunrise, which isn’t unusual for me while I’m at the cabin. The place is so full of wonder and adventure; I’m always eager to get started.

When I was growing up, we’d head out early on the boat to catch smallmouth bass on Elk Lake long before the weekend warriors set out to party on her crystal-clear waters. Dad would wake me up to go for canoe rides where we’d sneak up on resting bald eagles on the eerie ancient trees still standing in the middle of Lake Skegemog. In winter, we’d spend these morning hours on a variety of activities, from running down the dock to catch wigglers to use as bait in our ice shanty to cross-country skiing or taking snowmobile rides on fresh, powdery snow along the trails at Ranch Rudolf.

Today, it’s quiet.

My dog, Boomer, is ready to go, so I put the leash on him and head out. Three ducks fly overhead as we make our way down the path to the dock. Mallards are calling out to each other and I can see some buffleheads floating on the river.

I watch the waterfowl show while my dog does his business and, before long, realize that I can really see the river from my vantage point. Usually, it would be tough to see due to the vegetation. Has the view always been this unobstructed in the winter?

After looking around a bit more, I realize that something’s changed. Specifically, the tree count on our piece of property has gone down dramatically since my last visit. Every tree that used to provide some privacy from the water – and some cover for the local fauna – is missing. Looking closely at a large maple still standing, I can see a chainsaw wound a few feet high.

Dad’s still snoozing when I bring the dog back inside. I’ve never known him to sleep in.

It’s December 21 – the Winter Solstice. It’s the shortest day of the year and the sun doesn’t come up until well after 8:00 this morning. It’s been up for nearly an hour when I finally hear Dad start making noise in the back bedroom.

“I guess I was tired!” he announces to no one in particular.

“Feel like going for a ride?” I ask, anxious to make the most of the time we have together.

“Sure, just let me take my medicine first,” he says.

He swallows his pills, throws on his coat and hat, and we're ready to go.

Older gentleman dressed in a winter jacket and warm hat during a snowstorm.
Dad all geared up for the weather. Photo by Andy Miller.

“You drive!” I say as I throw him the keys.

Dad’s no stranger to driving cars at high speeds. He grew up selling and servicing snowmobiles, cars, and boats. He and his friends fixed up a race car in high school and put it to work out on local dirt tracks. When I was growing up, I’d beg him to smash his foot down on the accelerator of whatever Buick we were driving to school. “Use the supercharger!” I’d beg. He’d oblige from time to time and a smile would cover my face as my head snapped back into the headrest. Sometimes he’d even do donuts with me in empty lots – an experience I’d tell my friends about for weeks afterwards.

We've been fortunate to share a couple track experiences, too. We'd take turns smoking tires on someone else’s Dodge Vipers and taking hot laps on whatever road course we were visiting. At one event in Pennsylvania, the hosts set up a drag racing challenge. The rules were simple: Wait for the light on the tree to turn green, stomp on thte accelerator, and don't let up until you passed the quarter mile marker to receive your score. I was in my 20's and Dad was in his 60's; he didn't stand a chance in my mind. On the track, though, he whipped my ass. He whipped everyone else's, too, winning each head-to-head challenge.

Man sitting in drivers seat of a blue Dodge Viper with white racing stripes on a racetrack.
Dad at an SRT Driving Experience in Pennsylvania, 2008. Photo by Andy Miller.

When I went to work for Chrysler after college, I enjoyed driving free field cars. They’d typically give us something to drive that wasn’t selling on dealer lots and have us mile them out before sending them to auction. When gas started creeping towards four bucks a gallon back in 2007, people weren’t buying trucks and SUVs. In short-sighted American style, they were trading in their Suburbans for Sebrings, their Silverados for Sentras. Trucks lost 25% of their value overnight.

At the same time, Dodge was launching a new pickup with a 10-cylinder Viper engine pushing out 500 horsepower with low-profile tires and a manual transmission. It achieved approximately two miles per gallon downhill with a stiff tailwind. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the best time to launch the Ram SRT-10. But it was certainly a great time to be a 20-something Chrysler field rep with a gas card! We’d get a new SRT-10 every 1,500 miles, which is a good thing because I don’t think mine had too much tread left on the tires when they went back.

Red Dodge SRT-10 Quad Cab parked in front of a barn on a farm.
One of my mane SRT-10 field vehicles at my grandmother's farm. Photo by Andy Miller.

I’d always have my dad drive the cars I brought home. I enjoyed how proud he looked when he drove one of my new rides and how impressed he was when he’d hit the throttle. I’d also invariably learn something in the process, as he’d show me an overlooked feature or talk to me about the benefit of this and that.

One day my then-girlfriend/now-wife, Becky and I were up at the cabin for the weekend. Dad needed to run to the store, and I threw him the keys to the SRT-10 I had driven up. He backed out of the drive, threw it in first gear, gave us a devious smile, and floored it. Streaks of bright red went flying in every direction on the calm, quiet road. The truck sent loose gravel flying in every direction as it spun around twice, jolted forward, and came to an abrupt stop facing the other wrong way. The spinout left tire marks all over the street, a lingering smell of burnt rubber in the air around us, and my young career flashing before my eyes.

Dad wore a sheepish grin in the driver’s seat. Although he clearly didn’t mean to do what he did, he made a valiant save, somehow keeping the truck from smacking a tree. Even the nearby mailboxes and houses were still standing.

That was 13 years ago.

While today’s ride will undoubtedly be just as memorable, it’s proving to be a bit more reserved at the start. Dad’s taken great care to back out of the drive and he’s going so slowly down the road that the people walking their dogs are nervously putting some extra space between us. You can see them puckering up, wondering if we’re going to fully stop to mug them and steal their dogs. They wave tensely as we drive past at four miles per hour.

The drive doesn’t get any faster as we go around the lake. In fact, for the first time in my life, I just witnessed someone get passed in a 25-mph zone. Unfortunately, that someone is us. Oy vey, this trip down memory lane is going to take a while.

To kill the time, I casually ask, “What happened to all the trees at the cabin?”

“I cut the bastards down! Your nephew helped clear it out a few times this summer. I like to see the river!”

Umph. I’m not going to win this one – in fact, I’ve already clearly lost. I ask about the big maple with the cut in it.

“I was going to cut that one down too. Got about halfway through and realized I needed a bigger chainsaw. Thought it would improve the view. How do you like it?”

Truthfully, I miss the trees. I miss walking down to the river on cold snowy mornings and feeling like I had entered a winter wonderland. I miss the animals I’d see huddled underneath them and the deer using them for cover as they walked along in search of sustenance. I miss watching the little bronze balls flung out the end of my Red Ryder BB gun on their long, slow arc toward an unsuspecting blackbird or cedar waxwing.

A snowy, tree-lined pathway to the cabin.
The tree-lined cabin path, circa 1992. Author's personal collection.

The new and “improved” landscape looks like a barren field speckled with cattails. It leaves me longing for the old days and old ways.

But, as my grandmother always said, “there’s no sense crying over spilled milk,” so I change the subject as we plod very slowly along the shoreline.

We pass by the old stores in Alden, many of them with different owners, names, and offerings from the ones I remember. One that has weathered many storms appears boarded up for good. Higgins Party Store sits empty now, old display shelves knocked on their sides the only thing I can see through the windows. I’m sad to realize that I’ll never enjoy another Black Cherry ice cream cone on their benches out front again.

We hit 20 mph as we drive past the old basketball courts, playgrounds, and make out points dotting our path out of town. Time seems to stand still.

Dad suggests we stop by and see Nick on our way out of town. When we arrive, I hop out with my mask on and take him some Christmas cookies from the kids. The bond Nick and I forged as childhood deviants has grown stronger over the years. We served as each other’s Best Man and have done our best to keep in touch, but I haven’t seen him in 18 months. We could spend a month catching up, but settle for 10 minutes on the cold front porch. While we’re talking, I hear the truck door open and I look back. Dad’s taking a leak on Nick’s driveway. The diuretics are doing their trick.

Nick and I chat for a few more minutes and then we say our goodbyes, hoping our next visit will come much sooner than the last. I reclaim my spot in the passenger’s seat and we trudge ahead.

Our drive leads us to the Grass River Natural Area, a place we haven’t visited in years. Dad parks the truck. On warm summer days, you can walk the boardwalk around the river, catching glimpses of garter snakes, deer, turtles, and butterflies – or even an otter if you’re really lucky.

I throw on my backpack and GPS, thinking we’re going to take a decent trek through the enchanted forest.

Walking by the Visitors Center, I say something to Dad, but he doesn’t respond.

I look back.

He’s about 50 yards behind, taking small, cautious steps along the trail. I wait and take note to slow down the rest of the way. We walk along the trail for ten minutes before Dad announces, “I need to take a whiz,” and heads over to a tree.

While he’s taking care of his business, I look around for other signs of life. There aren’t any to be found on this cold December morning. All is quiet. Boomer eventually garners my attention by sniffing excitedly at a nearby stump. There’s something on top of it in the ice. Boomer’s found a critter, although this one isn’t going anywhere fast. The little brown piece of fur and legs ends up being a field mouse that succumbed to the cold. As if undisturbed, Old Man Winter has worked his way around it.

A dead field mouse sits encapsulated in ice and snow on top of an old tree stump. Laying upside down with its feet in the air.
Dead field mouse surrounded in ice and snow. Grass River Natural Area. Photo by Andy Miller.

We get to the river boardwalk and I step onto it. Dad hesitates.

“Maybe we should head back,” he says. “I don’t want to fall on that if it’s icy.”

I don’t protest. We walk back to the truck and Dad goes into one of his coughing spells.

“It’s just the cold air,” he offers.

I insist on driving, partly because I want to offer Dad a break and partly because I don’t want to spend a year getting back. Dad agrees, but says we should go see his friend, Bob, before heading home.

“Sounds good. Did you call him to let him know we’re coming?” I ask.

“Hell no! We’ll just show up and see if he’s there!”

Ever since I was a kid, Dad’s taken this approach to house calls. We’ve visited dozens of houses, nursing homes, and hospital beds together – many of them way out of the way – without any warning to the people who are staying there. Sometimes the people are there, sometimes they aren’t, but we’ve never been turned away from an unannounced visit. If our targets aren’t fans of these surprise visits, they haven’t shown it yet. In fact, I think they genuinely enjoy them as much as we do.

I’ve adopted a sneak attack strategy of my own over the years, too, and I can’t tell you how freeing it is. I have a tendency of trying to cram too much into a weekend – as Dad says, “trying to put ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag” – and sometimes find myself not able to see everyone I want. When you announce your visit ahead of time, people expect it. You don’t show up, they’re disappointed. But when you don’t announce your visits, there’s only upside! I’ve shown up on many doorsteps after a nine-hour haul to be greeted by a surprised face. Even Grandma didn’t know when I was coming. But you know what? She always seemed to have a pound of greasy bacon ready for me.

Back in the truck, Dad gives me some directions to Bob’s place. We’re headed to his workshop today, Dad explains, and we pull up to a nice pole barn at the top of a short, snowy driveway.

“We’re in luck!” Dad says, as he sees Bob’s shiny GMC parked behind the barn.

We climb out of the truck and head for the door.

“Wait just a second,” I hear, and turn to see Dad adding some color to the snow outside. This has to be his 10th piss of the day!

Dad zips up and walks over to the barn. Without knocking, he opens it up and hollers, “Hey Captain! You home?”

When we get inside, I can see Bob tinkering on something in the corner. A consummate gentleman, he looks over at his unannounced guests and welcomes us inside. Bob’s nearing 90 and has to look closely at me behind my mask. I take it down briefly so he can see me and take in his workshop as we head over to the sitting space.

Bob’s place isn’t fancy. The walls aren’t finished, the floor’s bare, and there’s a bunch of wood laying around from various projects. But it’s quiet, it’s warm, and there’s plenty to tinker with. It also provides a safe haven for Bob, where nobody gives him a Honey Do list; he can work on whatever he wants. Today, he’s building a wooden end table that he’ll take to a craft fair along with his other creations.

It’s brilliant, really. I make a mental note: When you grow up, be more like Bob.

Two older gentlemen sit in recliners to catch up in a workshop.
Dad and Bob catching up in the workshop. Photo by Andy Miller.

Dad and Bob have a long history together, working at the same dealership back in the 70’s and 80’s. In fact, Bob’s the guy who introduced us to the river. He owned the place next door to the cabin for many years. The three of us catch up for a little while, chatting about old cars, new cars, people buying new cars, people fixing up old cars, and a few things in between.

Our sneak attack successful, we exchange goodbyes with Bob and jump back in the truck for the 20-mile ride home.

We’re less than five miles down the road when he barks “Pull over!” I look over and recognize his in-car pee dance that I’ve become familiar with over the years. I find a driveway and pull off. You can see some of the windows on the house, so I tell him to hurry up.

“Damn pills,” he mutters.

Home Improvement

It starts to snow by the time we get back to the cabin and it looks magical coming down, even over the tree-free land. We watch it come down from the warm sunroom and it’s extremely peaceful. As we’re sitting there, I take in the furniture and décor.

It’s hard not to, honestly, as you have to take carefully orchestrated steps to move around the space. The couch serves as an eight-foot barrier between the walkway and sunroom. When the door’s open, you can’t get around it. If it‘s closed and you make it past the couch, you’re quickly met with the next obstacle: a 1990’s-style wooden dining table and chairs. These random pieces are complemented by some old light pink and pastel blue plaster seagull decorations my mom had hung to accentuate the former couch that’s long gone.

Furniture strewn about in cabin sunroom. Dining table in center of room with old cookie jar on top.
Cabin decor. Photo by Andy Miller.

The centerpiece of the room appears to be an old cookie jar my mother bought 30 years ago. It sits proudly on top of the table in the middle of the room.

“That cookie jar’s worth something,” my dad says, sensing me questioning its presence.

So is cocaine, but I don’t see any of that laying around, I think to myself.

Looking around the rest of the cabin, I realize that the interior has changed a lot over the years.

It’s clearly the work of a bachelor.

The old beige carpet was ripped up and replaced with an odd, red-colored pattern. There’s a huge maroon pull-out couch taking up the lion’s share of the family room. The TV sits atop an old sewing machine. And the old fridge was replaced with a stainless-steel version when it died. It all looks fantastically tacky.

Most of the family photos no longer hang from the walls and have been tucked away. Not a single one of my mother hangs in the cabin.

When this first happened a few years back, I went through a range of emotions. I was sad, angry, and confused. At one point, I even texted my wife while we were all playing cards in the kitchen saying, “I’m going to talk to Dad about Mom’s pictures tomorrow. It’s weird that they’re all gone.”

I quickly felt my phone buzz and opened the text response that said “You can talk to me now if you want to. But you should move on. Your mother’s been dead for a few years.”

I thought that was an odd response from Becky. I didn’t even see her type it. I glanced at her, but she wasn’t paying any attention to me. I looked back at the text and cringed when I realized it was from my dad. I had sent the text to him by mistake. Open mouth, insert both feet.

With the benefit of a few more years, I now understand why those pictures don’t hang in the cabin anymore. I’m certain it’s out of respect for Carol. And I get it – after all, Becky and I don’t hang pictures of our former lovers on the walls at our place.

I turn my attention to Dad sitting at the desk where the bulky desktop computer and dark gray monitor used to reside. The desk now houses a sleek mesh router system, a stapler, and room for my dad to write out his checks. Hanging directly above is perhaps my favorite example of bachelor design: a framed poster of a Buick Grand National GNX is flanked by a mount of the northern pike my dad caught in the river. These rest awkwardly above and beside a canvas print of us paddling the canoe down Torch River.

Man sitting at desk with Northern Pike mount hanging overhead and flanked by a Grand National GNX poster.
Dad sitting at his desk, beneath the Northern Pike. Photo by Andy Miller.

The more I look around, the more I discover that I like the way Dad’s decorated his castle. Sure, I’d do it differently, but he’s not worried about what I think. He’s organized it this way for him. The hodgepodge of furniture strewn about is functional – now he can eat breakfast in the sunroom while enjoying a full unhindered view of the river. The things hanging on the walls serve their purpose, too, reminding him of cherished memories. He couldn't care less about what the folks at Better Homes and Gardens think about it.

I have to applaud him for putting forth the effort – and for being unabashedly genuine.

Up for Anything

The snowflakes grow larger throughout the afternoon and they’re starting to shield our view of the river. After a few hours, there’s a decent accumulation of white stuff on the ground. I’m eager to take Boomer back outside to watch him relish his first real encounter with snow.

“I’m taking the dog for a walk. Want to come with us?”

“No,” Dad replies curtly, leaving no room for misunderstanding.

As I put on my layers and prepare to go outside, I hear him cough a few times. They‘re great, deep coughs – the kind you need a Kleenex to spit large yellow chunks into when they’re finished. I wait patiently for them to end, and then head outside.

I don‘t make a big deal of Dad’s declination to join us on the walk, but it‘s a significant departure from the norm. Throughout my life, I’d ask my dad to join me in all sorts of activities, and he always accepted the invitation. Always. It didn’t matter the circumstances or how bad my timing was. At the cabin, it wasn’t unusual for me to pounce on him just after he closed his eyes for a nap.

“Hey Dad!”

“Huh, what,” would come his startled mid-snore reply as his eyes let the light in once again.

“You were sleeping.”

“Oh, was I?”

“Yup. Do you want to go fishing?”

And, to his credit, he’d get off the couch and take me fishing. Or play P-I-G in the driveway. Or go for a ride in the canoe. Or take the boat into Elk Rapids.

As I got older, the asks became a bit more demanding and exotic.

“Hey Dad, do you want to go on a 30-mile canoe ride through the Okefenokee swamp next weekend? They’ve got alligators and snakes and you sleep in tents on a wooden platform over the water. We’ll drive down Thursday night.”


“Do you and Carol want to go to Germany and France in August? Mike’s having his baby baptized and would like us to be there.”

The answer was always, unequivocally, YES.

But not today. Today, Dad isn’t up for a 10-minute walk in the snow.

Maybe it’s the cough. Maybe it’s the heart issues. Or maybe it’s just his age catching up with him.

I’m lost in thought before realizing that Boomer’s been playing in the snow for a few minutes already. He seems to like it, but he keeps on holding up a paw to keep it from the foreign, cold substance now covering the path. He’s hesitant to go through the deeper drifts along the edges. A duck quacks down by the dock. Boomer suddenly forgets about the snow and we’re off, presumably to find the noisemaker. He settles for a showdown with a stump instead.

Small gray dog in sweater on dock staring down a stump in the water.
Boomer in a showdown with an old stump. Photo by Andy Miller.

Mechanics School

Dad’s tinkering with his router when we get back inside.

He sees me enter the room and asks, “Do you know how to set these things up?”

He’s holding a Google mesh router in one hand and an access point in the other.

“I can’t get them to connect to each other,” he tells me.

I take a look and get to work, using his phone to connect them to his account. It takes some additional steps and a reset, but we figure it out.

“Good job. Now how about this?” he asks as he hands me an Amazon Echo. “And then maybe we can work on the thermostat.”

Dad has more wireless gadgets than most other 77-year-olds.

We get the Echo set up and move onto the wireless thermostat my nephew bought him for Christmas. I look at the instructions, determine it seems simple enough, and swing into action. I flip the breaker for the furnace and pull the old thermostat off the wall.

The directions say to take note of the wires and how they’re connected. Strike one. The two wires aren’t connected to the old unit; it’s a remote model. Not to worry. How hard can it be with only two wires?

I look back at the instructions and they’re adamant that you need at least three wires for proper setup. Ehh. I try my luck with the two, making my best guess on where they connect to the 16 possible posts on the back plate. Naturally, I attach the red wire to the R post and the white one to W.

Time for the moment of glory. I flip the circuit back on and head over to the newly installed unit. Nothing. I play with the buttons a few times and an error message appears.

“Hey Dad, you need three wires for this thing! You only have two. I’m not even going to mess with it.” I say, trying to save face.

I flip off the circuit again, hurriedly reinstall the old thermostat, and turn the system back on. Nothing. I hit the buttons. No dice.

In the 15 minutes I’ve been messing around, the temp has gone down considerably. After all, the cabin isn’t the most insulated shelter.

In reality, “cabin” is a bit misleading. It’s the term I adopted in recent years to make it sound charming and quaint. Whenever I’m talking to people who belong to society’s upper crust, I find this simple word offers an air of wealth and respect. You can see their wheels turning as they imagine the vast riches my family must command and think about inviting me to their summer compound down on the Cape, just so I’ll return the favor.

Our “cabin” is really just a mobile home. A trailer. It sits on wheels and can be moved at any time with just a modicum of effort. I can still remember the day they pulled the old one off and put this newer 1984 model on the slab.

Mobile home being towed down the street with a Wide Load sign on front of the truck.
The trailer being pulled down the street on its way to our lot. Author's personal collection.

It’s 70 feet of pre-manufactured goodness. The walls are thin, the ceilings are covered in 'popcorn,' and the floors sink in when you step on them, offering evidence of old water leaks that have hindered their strength. The wood trim and wallpaper – ahead of its time in 1984 – now looks as old and outdated as it is.

It’s never been the nicest home Up North; hell, it’s not even the nicest home on the sleepy street it resides. The money isn’t on this side anyway. It’s over on the nearby lakefronts, with empty land commanding upwards of ten grand for every foot of frontage. Plenty of new money has come in over the years, with multimillion dollar homes now breaking up the blue water views I enjoyed taking in from the backseat during Sunday drives. Their part-time residents and guests relish walking out into the clear waters and sandy bottoms during the fleeting days of summer.

The river is less desirable. The water is clear, but the bottom is filled with seaweed and black muck that swallows things whole. Perfect for the snapping turtle trying to hide; unpleasant for anyone who falls in. The river isn’t too deep, so the big, expensive boats steer clear. Nobody goes up and down our river for sunset cruises. Kid Rock didn’t write a song about it. And there’s no sandbar in the middle of the river where hundreds of boats park on weekends to show off their booming speakers and drunk occupants.

All that stuff – and all that money – sticks to the lakes.

It’s no secret that infrastructure improvements go where the tax dollars are. The lakefront developments were greeted with smooth roads, parks, and sewer lines decades ago.

Those luxuries have been a little slow coming to the river.

I remember when our septic tank backed up. It was a gradual process, initiated by years of roots growing and working their way inside and blocking the drainage field. The first summer, I just thought the grass must get the ideal amount of sunshine in that location. It offered the brightest greens and fastest-growing grass this side of the Mason-Dixon.

A large, perpetually wet spot marked the green grass the following year. When you’re there on weekends with so much exploring to do, you really don’t think twice about it. You just run through the water and laugh on your way to the shed to grab the inner tube.

Snow didn’t accumulate on that area all winter. That grass is really smart, my young brain thought.

The following summer a decidedly foul stench enveloped the yard. We’d run down the other side of the trailer to get to the river. Or, better yet, I’d load up the four-wheeler and drive as fast I could, spraying water this way and that.

Then the unthinkable happened one day. I was walking barefoot through the lawn and stepped on something mushy. I looked at my foot and there was no mistaking it; I had stepped on a dark brown, gooey, toilet trout. I could see several more trying to wiggle free from beneath the rusting iron manhole cover.

Dad called the septic guy immediately. That afternoon, a big burly dude named Ralph hopped down from his tanker cab to take a look.

After realizing what I had been stepping in, I went way out of my way to stay out of the area. Even talking about it made me nauseous. Ralph didn’t seem to share those reservations. Indeed, he was quite clearly cut from a different cloth. A no-nonsense type, you quickly got the impression Ralph wasn’t there to exchange pleasantries.