In 1952, after our parents’ divorce, my infant sister, Bonnie, and I went to live with my Uncle Ed, Aunt Louise, and their four children in a two-story house on N. Main St. A stately old elm tree shaded the house, one of many that canopied Main all the way up the hill to Kingsley. Across the street was the city yard, where all the heavy equipment was stored. My dad worked for the water department, and I’d wave when I saw him coming or going in his beat-up Jeep and Stetson hat.

In the late 2000s, a developer’s sign occupied the spot that for decades advertised Neff’s Bait House. The house was torn down in 2013. | Photo: John Hilton

Uncle Ed Neff was tall, over six feet, with dark curly hair and a cigarette always dangling from his mouth. A bulldozer operator for Jim Guenther’s construction company, he worked long hard hours to feed his family. We always loved the Saturdays when he would bake bread or, if Aunt Louise asked, make donut holes dripping with vanilla glaze. Hunter, fisherman, provider for his extended family, he was as tough as he needed to be, but never have I known a more loving and kind man. In many ways he became my surrogate father. An ardent U-M fan, he listened to every Michigan football game on the radio. I can still hear him yelling “Michigan! Michigan!” whenever Tony Branoof made a bad pass. Once the games were televised, he and all my boy cousins would be glued to the screen.

Aunt Louise, my father’s sister, was a short, stout woman who became my mother in all but name. She and Uncle Ed had married right out of high school and stayed together through many good times and some harrowing bad times. They unabashedly loved each other, openly sharing hugs and kisses and holding hands. She had a brain for business and was the force behind the bait shop.

My eldest cousin, Bill, had been drafted to fight in Korea, so Kay, his wife, spent a good deal of time with us. Aunt Louise babysat grandson Teddy-Bill, as we all called him, while Kay worked at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Kay was one of the sweetest, most compassionate individuals ever put on this earth.

Tommy was my next-in-line cousin. Then came Carole and baby Jimmy—James Lewis, named after my dad, Lewis James. He and I were almost exactly a year apart in age. Both of us towheads, we were so close in height and weight that we were often mistaken for twins

The house was always busy, with kids and their friends coming and going. But somehow Aunt Louise always found room for one more in the tiny dining area just off the even tinier kitchen. We were such a happy family. Poor by today’s standards—we just didn’t know it.

Out front, a small red-and-white sign announced “Neff’s Bait Shop” in black letters. I can recall every detail about the gray shed at the back of the driveway, starting with the fishy, earthy smell. There were three huge cement tanks, four or five feet deep, where different kinds of minnows awaited their fate. A small refrigerator held nightcrawlers, red worms, angleworms, grubs, and other wiggly things that fishermen used to coax that Big One out of the water. 

If I remember correctly, fifty nightcrawlers were fifty cents. We kids would go outdoors at night after every rain to catch them. Our captives would be incarcerated in a big cement tank just outside the basement entrance. Whenever we enjoyed the best part of a cold watermelon on a hot summer day, my aunt would take the rinds out to the worm pit and offer them as a feast for the critters—recycling at its finest, composting at its best.

Most of our neighbors were African American. The Baxters lived next door in a house with white siding that always looked brand-new. The immaculately groomed front yard was Mr. Baxter’s pride and joy. The backyard was fenced, because Mrs. Baxter ran a child care business. The women chatted over the fence, and were so close that Mrs. Baxter called my cousin Carole her “white daughter.”

A short walk up the hill was Tom’s Grocery, where kids burst through the squeaky screened door on quests for candy or a soft drink. All by ourselves, Jimmy and I, age six and five, would race to Tom’s to get an ice-cold Pepsi on hot summer days.

The Bedollas lived next door to Tom’s. Carole and Patty Bedolla were best friends and later played softball together at Vets Park with my cousin Bill as coach. Further up the hill, just past Kingsley, sat the Greek Orthodox Church; my friend Connie Cristacos lived next door.

There was a Marathon gas station at the corner of Depot, and a Texaco station and Tiny’s grocery store at Summit. The whole neighborhood enjoyed Tiny’s good humor; if we were lucky, Uncle Ed would take me and Jimmy along when he bought his cigarettes and beer. 

We attended Jones School, now Community High. Looking at the enormous (to me) brick building from the street, I could see my kindergarten classroom windows, situated to the right of the big front doors on the ground floor. Miss Swanson played piano and sang to us at nap time, and I couldn’t wait to make sense of the letters that made words in the books that she read to us each day.

Jimmy was supposed to see that I got home from school every day. But once there was a tornado warning, we were sent home early, and Jimmy was nowhere to be found. I hurried in what I thought was the right direction but somehow ended up on the wrong street. A lovely Dutch lady found me, standing in front of her house sobbing. She dried my tears, gave me a cookie, and called my aunt to tell her that she would walk me home.

My sister and I lived with Aunt Louise and Uncle Ed for about two years. When our mother remarried, we moved to a farm outside of South Lyon. But every July, Jimmy would come to the farm for a week or two, and in August I would go stay with Uncle Ed and Aunt Louise, right up until Jimmy joined the Navy and I went off to college. 

The elm trees are long gone, along with the gas stations and neighborhood groceries. Neff’s Bait House carried on for a while after my uncle’s death and my aunt’s move to assisted living, but closed in the 1980s.

Their house was demolished in 2013, along with half the block, for an affordable housing project that never happened. Nothing remains but a vacant lot—one that, to me, still teems with memories of the diverse group of families who lived, loved, and died there.