The Western Auto Store is now a Chinese restaurant and not a very good one from the looks on people’s faces. Bad meals had been eaten there. We stopped the car for just a minute but when I got out, I decided against a picture. I couldn’t see in my mind’s eye how it had been before, see my dad through the glass standing at the counter helping a customer choose a set of wrenches or see our dog, Rusty and her puppies laying in a box in the window. My dad knew how to sell things. He knew people would come to see the puppies.
Besides I didn’t need a photo because the woman at the Historical Society had already found an old one, a shot of Main Street in Hudson, Michigan, taken in 1949 that included my dad’s Western Auto Store.
Driving into town, late in the afternoon, my husband decided that we would find out about my dad’s store and find where we had lived. My big brother, who was 10 when we left Hudson, remembered that we’d lived in two houses, one near the city dump and another that my dad built on a street next to a horse farm. I wanted to find one or both of the houses and send him a picture. That’s it. I just wanted a picture.
But only if it was easy to find and didn’t involve talking to a lot of people. I wanted to know, but not that bad. I wanted to come and go. Have a fleeting experience. I was okay with imagining any number of houses could have been ours. I didn’t need to know.
But my husband made it his cause. Like a TV detective, he carefully went from clue to clue, charming first one and then another of the town’s old residents. We talked to the town’s ancient mechanics, the Grieg brothers.
We went to the town’s Historical Society museum in a hurry because the mechanics told us it would close in five minutes. The two wonderful people there, Mike and Diane immediately started asking us questions, looking for information, hauling out ancient Hudson telephone books, leafing through plastic covered photographs, searching birth records, sorting through 3 x 5 cards. I stood in what had been an old bank safe and looked at binders labeled ‘Obituaries’ and ‘Family Histories’ and wondered why the people in this tiny town cared so much about what had happened in the past. I look at their exhibits and loved them for keeping all these things safe.
I should care more about the past, I thought. But I don’t. I’m all about this minute, this afternoon, this cheeseburger, this page, my hot shower, my flannel pajamas and the work I’m going to do tomorrow. But tomorrow is as far as I get about the future. And I don’t think about yesterday at all. It saves me from sorrow, I think. It’s my protection from regret. I don’t live in the past. I rarely even visit.
We started to feel at home at the Historical Society. I looked at the old rolling pins and the meat grinders, the ceramic dolls and the military uniforms and I thought, ‘these are my people.’ I was born here in 1948 and my mother probably walked down Main Street holding me. I was her last baby.
We didn’t stay long. My parents, brother and sister moved to Hudson from Lansing in 1945, practically the second the war was over and left in 1949. The story, as my father told it and as Mike the historian confirmed, was that my father sold the Western Auto Store to a Mr. Stucky. What Mike didn’t know, I told him.
My father, who knew his own mind like no one else I have ever known, sold his store and his house to Mr. Stucky when Mr. Stucky, a furrier from Toledo with four sons, walked into the Western Auto Store just after my father had come from a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce where he had failed to convince the other members of the need to recruit the Tecumseh company to Hudson. “The town was never going to grow,” I remember my dad saying to me as he recounted this story time and again. “I had just had it.” And so he locked up the store that day and went home to the house he’d just built in a new subdivision called Hemlock Hollow, next to an old horse farm, where he told his wife of 12 years that he’d sold their business and their house.
This was the house he built and then sold not long after. A sweet little house next to a farm. I might have grown up there had my father been a different kind of person.
But I can see him doing this, making this decision, standing in the Western Auto Store that afternoon and knowing his own mind so absolutely well that when he decided it was time for him to go, he had not a single second of doubt.
I see this as clearly as I see him a few years later walking in the door of our next house in Hastings from his day job selling appliances at Sears, having dinner and walking out the door with his trumpet in a black case with a little silver buckle to go to his night job playing in the band at the dance hall down the road part way to Battle Creek. He paid a price for getting mad. We all did. It wouldn’t be the last time we moved or the hardest.
I was at home in Hudson, all of it felt familiar to me, but I wanted to leave.
Let my parents have their life, I thought. Let me have mine.