The thick envelope hung suspended in the mail drop shaft. I tapped on the glass a few times to free the white rectangle, but I expected nothing of the reward from a vending machine. If the letter fell, I would receive no candy bar or chips. Instead, my gratification would come from moving a story along.
The paused parcel reminded me of the pilgrimages we all take. For the lost and alone, the trip might be a daily walk to a corner drug deal. For the religious, the holy lands of a faith can represent an ultimate homecoming.
For me, the end of June beckoned in my boyhood.
A seven-hour drive meant my feet could stand on the land of Door County, Wisconsin, by day’s end. My lungs could fill with the mix of pine forests and lake water, and my stomach could fill with cherry ice cream and Swedish pancakes.
Our family route never strayed except for minor detours in construction zones. We stopped at the same rest area for the same lunch: a picnic of deli meats and cheeses, a can of original Pringles and M&M cookies Mom had baked the day before and frozen for the trip.
Dad drove the entire way, up through Milwaukee, when we had to turn off the radio, and my sister and I were forced to quit fighting so Dad could concentrate in heavy traffic. We traveled through the old tunnel in the city’s downtown, a part of the trip now only a memory because of infrastructure upgrades.
Back then, the summer afternoon disappeared into the cadence of tunnel lights.
By the time we made it to Manitowoc, we’d eat at the Elbow Room, a local haunt filled with smoke and stares at our family of four, out-of-towners. After the meal, we always politely told our waitress we were full. No dessert, thanks. We’d drive down near the harbor to the red-and-white-striped awning of Beerntsen’s Confectionary.
The ice cream shop is still there, but the portions have shrunk. New laws have eliminated smoking in restaurants, and the interior renovations at our traditional dinner stop have made the place look bland. The grit of a dive establishment left with the removal of the dark wood paneling and wrought-iron wall decorations.
Dusk on those trips found us crossing the Door County line, and we all settled in for a week of zero distractions on a peninsula where most bends in the roads include a view of Lake Michigan. My parents never worked on vacation, and my sister and I could never bring friends. Family time was sacred.
But as summer faded into school days, another annual pilgrimage began amid the snowflakes of winter break, though the route stayed much closer to home.
In what my aunt had dubbed “The Jelly Run,” she and my sister and I would don festive hats, blast Christmas oldies in the car and unload holiday cheer upon extended family members. Homemade cookie platters strained against the plastic wrap next to jellies packed into jars we’d saved for my aunt throughout the year, now decorated in festive cloth and adorned with tiny, handwritten labels noting the recipients.
The three of us would ping pong our way to houses in two counties like an ornament falling through the boughs of a Christmas tree.
Our route started in my hometown with the empty house of a great-uncle gone to Texas each winter. His goodies stayed cold in the natural refrigerator of the screened in porch. We’d fit the narrow gifts between the storm door and the front door while the neighbors peered from their kitchen window to see who might be robbing the house.
Next, the great-aunt and great-uncle who owned an auto shop where we could drink pop in glass bottles and eat my aunt’s fresh cookies, sugar to balance the air sour with the oil and grease.
Down the road, we pointed toward the Mississippi River and a great-aunt who lived in a two-story house twenty steps from the riverbank. When ice gripped the river’s edges, we’d test the thickness with a boulder tossed from the boat ramp. A dull clunk granted my sister and I time to slide around in the whipping wind as we walked on water.
The trip wound back through the countryside to my grandparents, another aunt and uncle with our younger cousins and finally to the old farmhouse warmed by a wood-burning stove. Another great-uncle, a World War II pilot, lived in the isolated home hand-built by relatives of a generation long gone.
Often our trip started well before my sister or I wanted to wake up on a Saturday and lasted until we were late for the big pre-Christmas family dinner. My parents used the time to cook, clean and set up for company with my sister and me out of the house.
The map has shrunk, and in the past several years, the trip has lasted a few hours if we’ve stretched it.
As our family’s old guard has died, the piles of cookie plates and stacks of jelly jars have dwindled so that they slide around in the lid of a paper box. Treats used to overtake half of the backseat. My aunt would have to mediate arguments about who would ride all day shoulder-to-box with the collection.
Similar to summer luggage and winter sweets, that letter in the drop shaft needed somewhere to go. It remained lodged behind the glass, and I needed to leave for work, a pilgrimage of its own but never as fulfilling as those yearly trips to the Door and door-to-door.