[Ed. note: This story is likely going to wind up in a literacy education product that I happen to work on, so it’s written for fourth graders. But for right now, it’s just an incredibly charming story of my small-town mom coming to the big city for the first time. Enjoy.]
In the then 21 years of my life, I had never left the state of Michigan and rarely strayed far from my small town of three hundred people. The only big city I had ever been in was Detroit, and I think I was about four or five years old at the time, and all I remember is giggling at the way the elevator in Macy’s made my stomach feel. My life for 21 years was so peaceful and safe. My brothers and sister and I roamed the fields late at night, watching the Northern lights roll down green, red, and white from the Arctic. I walked far out into the woods, never afraid to be alone, gathering morels in the spring, blackberries in the fall, and violets and Dutchman’s britches in the summer. We didn’t have “streets” in rural Michigan. We had “roads,” and most of them were gravel. We left the keys in the car, and we did not have locks on our doors. At night it was quiet except for the wind in the poplar leaves and the train whistle as the freight from the paper mill in Cheboygan came through the river valley. I rarely saw anyone I didn’t know. I rarely saw anyone that my parents and their parents before them didn’t know. The tallest buildings I saw were old barns and churches. Everything was familiar and safe and the same as it always had been.
But when I was 21, I was going to college at Michigan State University, and I met a man named John [Ed. note: Oh hey that’s my dad!]. During long walks along the Red Cedar River we talked, and he learned of my interest in art history, especially Van Gogh and the Impressionists. He wanted to take me back to Chicago to meet his family, and he wanted to share the Art Institute with me at the same time. So, one Saturday morning we threw a couple of bags in the back of the car and began the long drive from East Lansing to Chicago.
I was excited for the trip, but nothing prepared me for the massive expanse of concrete, the dizzying heights of the buildings, and the crush and scream of thousands and thousands of cars, trucks, signs, lights, overpasses, underpasses, and ramps that is Lake Shore Drive. Going into Chicago felt like leaving the planet, like we had driven out of Michigan around the lake and ended up on Pluto. It was all just so foreign, so frightening, so loud, so bright, so different from anything I had ever experienced. I remember being so terrified that my fingernails were embedded in the dashboard.
But the thing that was truly intense was the visit to the Art Institute that afternoon. I remember my eyes literally seeming to burn as we went through gallery after gallery filled with Van Goghs and Impressionist paintings. I remember my head throbbing and having to shut my eyes in the galleries from time to time because the experience was just far too intense, too much to take in. I had dreamed of seeing “real” paintings for so long, and it was here, all here, all at once, hundreds of paintings that I had only seen in books and in slide shows in my art history classes. I was utterly drained, a total limp rag. I think I fell into a state of exhaustion that night rather than simply just falling asleep.