When I was in second grade in the early 1960s, my parents had to sign a permission slip for me to learn about dinosaurs. My teacher at West Willow Elementary School in Ypsilanti, Ann Lee, taught evolution—a radical move in our community of conservative Baptist and Catholic factory and airport workers and stay-at-home moms. She also looked pretty artsy for our neighborhood—she wore black-cat eyeglasses and had a blond Dutch-boy haircut.
“Good grief!” was her signature saying when her students fell short of the mark. She said it to me when I linked baby Bs as I practiced penmanship. (“They look like ladies holding each other’s gowns,” I explained.) On my report card she noted my poor handwriting.
On the afternoon she told our class President Kennedy had been shot, her face was stained with tears, but she held her composure. She asked us to draw a picture. I sketched him in a glass casket waiting for a kiss to revive him, just like Snow White.
Ann’s daughter, Barbara, was my best friend. Her bedroom had two beveled-glass cases of antique dolls. During sleepovers in her vintage bed, we plotted how she would become a famous artist and I a famous writer.
The Lees’ home was a bland three-bedroom, but its furnishings made it a paradise. Ann’s sister, Nancy Dietrich, an antique dealer, squired Ann to auctions, and together they filled the house with beautiful old things—an imposing rosewood hand-carved Voss piano, a rich red and blue Persian rug, a ruby velvet sofa and cobalt velvet Lincoln chair and rocker, and a round solid oak table and chairs. Paintings, photographs, and sculptures abounded, and the strains of classical music, the soundtracks of Oklahoma or West Side Story, and pop singers like the Association or Nancy Sinatra added to the sumptuous atmosphere.
But books were the home’s foundation. Novels. Paperbacks. Encyclopedias. Picture books. Tomes on art and history, photography, psychology, sailing, and anthropology. They were crammed on bookshelves and spread across the floors. Books tottered on shelves in the narrow hall, making for a perilous trek from the living room to the bathroom, where there was a magazine-loaded rack and books and newspapers strewn on the floor, toilet, and sink.
Ann and Chuck, Barbara’s stepfather, were readers. Chuck’s liberal leanings seemed at odds with his brush cut and frequent railing against “creep-agers”—his pet name for teenagers. Though he could be intimidating, I found the courage to join the family’s conversations about books and ideas. The dishes remained in the sink and the beds unmade while we carried on discussions about Inuit culture or Leonard Bernstein over potato-leek soup and pistachio pudding.
Excursions and social events with the Lees were in stark contrast to the cake-and-ice-cream parties of my other friends and the pot roast dinners at my grandparents’ farm. Our gang of fifth-graders celebrated Barbara’s birthday eating pizza and throwing peanuts on the floor at Bimbo’s in downtown Ann Arbor. We giggled and sang along with a piano player who grinned as he played “Ain’t She Sweet?” and “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two).”
I tagged along once to Eastern Market in Detroit. Barbara, her brother Tom, and I trailed as Ann and Chuck bought exotic fruits, vegetables, and spices. I ate my first tacos and refried beans with them in Mexicantown that day.
In seventh grade at Belleville Junior High School, Barbara and I attended different classes, made new friends, and drifted apart. The Lees moved to California the following summer, when Chuck, an electro-
optical engineer at KMS in Ann Arbor, was transferred. But Barbara and I stayed in touch through letters. After I graduated from high school I visited her in California. After earning her art degree in Santa Barbara, she stopped by to see me at my efficiency apartment in Ypsilanti before she went to live in Australia. Later she moved to New York City, married, had two sons, and taught grade school like her mother.
In December 1986 Barbara called and invited me to visit her parents’ new home in Manchester. Chuck and Ann had bought a yellow Greek Revival house to be closer to Ann’s family.
Just as they had in West Willow, the family and their friends crammed around the oak table in the kitchen adjacent to the parlor, savoring Chuck’s home-roasted coffee and fruit flan. I’ve visited them at Christmas and joined them for the Chicken Broil ever since. To this day, Chuck insists on greeting every female who visits with big bear hugs that lift us off our feet. “Gee, Chuck,” I still tell him, “I’ll know you’re getting old when you no longer pick up girls.”
The house at Main and Washington had a history worthy of its new occupants. The Manchester Historic District Study Committee calculates the date of its initial construction as 1836 but has yet to ascertain who built it or who lived in it during the rest of the nineteenth century. William and Mary Cash lived there from 1906 to 1954 with their son and a daughter who later became a Carmelite nun. Thomas Armstrong bought and made extensive repairs to the house in 1972, adding a garage and rear wing. In 1979 he eventually sold it to Mr. and Mrs. David Cooper. Its rich history and romantic setting on the village green made it the ideal showcase for the Lees’ plentiful antiques. Lying on blankets looking at the fireworks, watching Barbara’s sons run in the sprinkler, listening to the concerts at the gazebo on the village green, the Lees and I deepened our relationship.
In 2005 Ann and Chuck moved into a modular home on River Bend. Tom and his wife, Jan, live with their four hounds on the first floor. Chuck and Ann reside above with a view of the River Raisin and the great blue herons and sandhill cranes that visit it. A neighbor bought the piano before the move, but the red and blue Persian rug is still on the floor, and other antiques I remember from my childhood still bring the comfort of familiarity.
Shelves filled with books cover the walls, but Ann, who suffers from muscular dystrophy and Alzheimer’s disease, reads less frequently now, finding it difficult to remember from one page to the next. Chuck respectfully accommodates the wife he still refers to as his child bride, even though she was two years older than he was when they married on Valentine’s Day nearly half a century ago. And though Ann has trouble with more recent events, we still joke about my handwriting and my shaky second-grade clay stegosaurus.