Self-Preservation in Southwest Michigan


If the sand that hugs the southeast tail of Lake Michigan is coarse, brown sugar, then the broadside of western Florida is dusted with Turkish coffee. The imperceptibly fine white powder settles in the creases of your clothes and clings to the bottoms of your feet even after you believe you've rinsed them off. Being back here at my parents' condo building has slowed time. A week here feels like a month of rolling waves and measuring the weather by the wind across the water. We rented a unit on the ground floor that opens up to the beach. Looking up from the pool deck—both my early morning work space and my balcony—I see four huge ospreys carving wide interlocking circles in the sky. After a few moments, they spin away from each other and fly in the four directions of the compass to parts unknown. 

After we finished our move at the end of July, we spent a few weeks in Michigan with my in-laws. At the end of August, Kev's family did as they have done for years and spent a week together as a family in a cottage on the shores of Lake Michigan. We were in Michiana this time, in a four-bedroom house big enough to accommodate four couples, one toddler, and two large dogs. Our room was near the front door, and we'd step outside and see the green edge of the high bluff fall away to the hidden shore below. 

When you merge the habits and culture of four families under one roof, the regular cadence of the day dissolves into some new melody, some new recipe. Last year the family worked together to maintain an almost entirely gluten-free kitchen for me. This year was the same, with a few traditional poppy seed bagels, apple crisp, tarts, and loaves of bread. Over the course of the week, the standards slackened with expectations. The dinners were carefully prepared to be safe for me, but hands that held whole wheat sandwiches during lunch rummaged through once gluten-free chips and pretzels, across cheeses and lunchmeat, depositing crumbs unknowingly across the house in corners and jam jars.

It's a lot to ask for six people unaccustomed to being aware of cross contamination to change (I excluded Kev; he's already on this and even said that we see the house through some gluten-blacklight eyes—aware of the microscopic crumbs we try so hard to avoid.) My anxiety that week was probably worse than any reaction. I hadn't lived in such a gluten-heavy zone for a long time. My mother-in-law had been very diligent in their house about quarantining the gluten so that I felt very safe. This was new for me. The moment I remember most was standing in the dining room—the corner of which had become home to contraband pastries—and watching as four family members took turns at a huge tray of cheese danish, each gliding away with a hunk of the delicacy in their hands. They each spiraled to a different part of the house, moving past me to reach the living room, across me to the kitchen, on my left to the other bedrooms. I was being circled by sharks, and I stood rooted until they ventured elsewhere. 

I resorted to buying new groceries and keeping the nonperishables in my room and the fridge food in labeled, sealed off tupperware. And my mother-in-law made me a gluten-free peach cobbler of my own. This felt like my first travel challenge with celiac disease. When it comes to confrontation about my condition, I struggle to find the words—and the approach—that convey what I need them to convey: compassion, understanding, education about cross contamination, without that streak of insecurity that comes across as attacking or patronizing. This is difficult, because this whole gluten thing is emotionally charged for me. I hate "making a fuss" or "rocking the boat," but I have to if I'm going to eat safely during this travel adventure. And this is family—no one wants to get me sick. The intentions are good. And they are good with most people, even strangers. 

 View from the back of my in-laws' new house.

View from the back of my in-laws' new house.

At the end of Lake Week, we returned to my in-laws' house in Ann Arbor for the final throes of their move to a nearby town in Michigan. So once again, we packed up a home (though I mostly wrangled my son to keep him out of the way) and moved. The new house was burgeoning with boxes by the afternoon and we began another couple weeks' span of settling in. By mid September, we were saying good-byes and boarding a plane to Tampa. It was hard to leave my in-laws; they had helped us, helped me, feel at home. We'll see them again in a few months, but for now, it's Autumn, changing leaves on sandy beaches and planning where we'll stay in the next few months. And it's great, so great, to see my parents. And here, given my father's celiac disease, all of the food is safe—mostly.